Gopalbhai Popat at the ripe age of 96 years is going strong with remarkable memory of his time in Uganda (Kamuli), India (Hyderabad) and finally 45 years in the UK (London) devoted exclusively to philanthropy and community service.
Hasu Manek and I recently paid a visit to this inspiring community veteran and unsung hero whose silent contribution to our society is noteworthy. Given a chance, such elderly people are eager to share their life experiences. They have remarkable wisdom and happy to speak with absolute frankness as they have stopped caring about what people will think or say. We can also learn from them.
Gopalbhai remains in a combative mood with vivid memories of his adventures and achievements in Uganda. He arrived in Uganda at very young age and soon settled in the job of a cotton buyer with the Madhvani Group where his sincerity and hard work quickly earned him the respect of the late Jayantbhai Madhvani, a stalwart of the Madhvani Group and a remarkable industrialist. Gopalbhai was candid in his remarks about the unscrupulous methods of the Asians, which took undue advantage of the innocence of the Africans then and which in today’s world would be branded as nothing but theft.
Gopalbhai started his own trading business in Kamuli during his early 20s. He had developed a special rapport with Jayantbhai Madhvani. He remembered an incident about supporting the main political parties of Uganda, UPC and DP. As Jayantbhai was openly supporting UPC, he could not be seen to lend support to DP, the opposition. He therefore asked Gopalbhai to support DP and promised to reimburse him for any expenses. Gopalbhai successfully carried out this assignment but despite Jayantbhai’s insistence to reimburse him, he covered all costs himself. This was to prove a major turning point in his ensuing relationship with Jayantbhai. This soon lead to Gopalbhai being granted a number of Madhvani agencies, ranging from sugar to flour to commodities. Business for Gopalbhai mushroomed so much so that recalls with a sparkle in his eye that he had no time to even count the money that was flowing in at the time. He said many a times, he and his wife, Lilavantiben would fall asleep whilst counting the money! He also recalled a particular incident where one of his business contacts wanted a loan of 1.5 lac shillings (a big sum in those days). He said to the associate that he is happy to lend and that too without interest but with one condition and that was for the person to come to his home and count the money by himself as he had no time to count. Gopabhai was making tons of money!
He started to provide credit to other traders. One of them ran away from the country leaving a large sum unpaid. This was to prove to be the onset of the challenges for Gopalbhai. He is now quite philosophical about those times and puts it down to life’s good and bad times that most of us experience .
Difficulties that followed were tough enough to lead him to contemplate giving up his life. He happened to see a Bollywood movie at his lowest point which he recalled had an actress called Mala Sinha. He saw her suffer with her uncles after losing her parents. This gave him the resolve to work hard and recover for the sake of his children. Clearly, God had other plans in store for him. He had to finally leave Uganda for India where he settled in Hyderabad as he had relatives there. As it frequently happens, even the relatives lost interest in him when they realised that Gopalbhai had returned from Africa penniless.
Despite some success in business in Hyderabad, he packed up from there in 1972 and came to London, which was to be his home and a base for the philanthrophic and social work. Gopalbhai nurtured a close relationship with Swami Keshwanand, Bhaishri Rameshbhai Oza and Muniji. He became instrumental in organizing Bhagwat Kathas. He has raised over £7m for charitable purposes with his peak as the Trustee of Asian Foundation for Help. This is more than what many wealthy individuals ever give back to society!
Gopalbhai still keeps a watchful eye over charity initiatives in UK with a focus on needs in India be it poor widows or children needing education or arranging much needed medical equipment. We debated with Gopalbhai if India now needs any support from us given that wealth has mushroomed there when there should be local philanthropists.
He could not hide his cynicism about the underlying motives of the religious leaders visiting the UK. He has a word of caution that these people are not God but only knowledgeable humans who are good at what they do. They should be viewed as such.
His advice to the younger generation is that life has got its ups and downs so just face them. One must give back to society socially or with charity. Also, he says reading self-development books including the Bhagwad Gita changed his thought process and that this is as applicable today as it was then.
(Subhash Thakrar is the founder Charity Clarity, former Chairman London Chamber of Commerce and Non Executive Director with various companies and charities)